August 11, 2013
GUNDU, NEPAL – Women with heaps of grass on their backs emerge from the Bal Kumari Community Forest in Gundu, a village nearly 10 kilometers (six miles) southeast of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.
The women collect grass here to feed their cattle – something they could not freely do before obtaining access to this community forest in 2000, says Sita Nagarkoti, founding president of Bal Kumari Community Forest.
Nagarkoti, 35, says she petitioned the Gundu village development committee 13 years ago to create this community forest after she grew tired of stealing from other government and community forests to feed her livestock.
“We had to sneak in and steal firewood and grass for our cattle from another nearby community forest,” she says. “If we didn’t do so, our livestock would not get any grass, and we would be without firewood to cook food.”
The Gundu village development committee processed her request quickly to create the new community forest, she says.
“Admirably, my demand was fulfilled within a month,” she says. “The local VDC and the forest ranger office provided us 11 hectares [27 acres] of land.”
Thanks to the community forest, life has improved, Nagarkoti says.
“The situation is different now,” she says. “We are independent in our needs because of our own community forest.”
Today, a committee of 13 women manages the community forest.
In Nepal, the government is training citizens, and especially women, to manage community forests to combat deforestation. Community forests are also helping local people to increase their incomes by expanding their access to forest resources. Moreover, they are creating leadership opportunities for women, who are winning recognition for their competence, honesty and transparency in managing community forests. Despite these improvements, women say the number of community forest users is decreasing as alternative fuel sources gain popularity.
The government owns most of the 5.83 million hectares (14.4 million acres) of forestland here, according to the Department of Forests. Historically, the government restricted access to forests. For a fee, local residents could collect supplies – such as firewood – from forests.
But more than 25 percent of residents here live below the international poverty line, defined as earning less than $1.25 (120 rupees) per day, according to the World Bank. So many say they resorted to sneaking into government forests, as Nagarkoti did, because they could not afford the fee.
More than 70 percent of Nepal’s population depends on agriculture for its livelihood, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. Together, citizens manage more than 25 percent of Nepal’s forest area.
There are more than 17,800 community forests in Nepal, says Subhas Kumar Sharma, the assistant community forest officer of the Community Forest Division of the Department of Forests. More than one-third of Nepal’s population participates in the community forest program in some way.
Women operate 33 percent of community forests in Nepal, Sharma says. The Bal Kumari Community Forest, which is entirely women-led, has gained recognition locally and internationally as one of the best community forests in Nepal. The World Wildlife Fund Nepal, the national chapter of the global conservation organization, recognized and honored the group with a conservation award in 2005.
In the 1970s, deforestation throughout Nepal became an environmental crisis. For decades, deforestation and other related environmental issues were increasingly common. Nepal lost 53 hectares (130 acres) of its forest cover per year between 2000 and 2005, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
With the help of international agencies and its own resources, Nepal shifted its conservation efforts to focus on sustainable citizen management of some of the nation’s forests, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Anuj Raj Sharma, the community forest officer in the Community Forest Division of the Department of Forests, says it has empowered women to take on leadership roles in this initiative.
The concept of community forests emerged in the 1970s, and the government formalized the system in the 1990s, he says. But since 2000, women have been moving to the forefront in managing the forests.
“[The] Department of Forest[s] has been consistently assisting the local communities to organize users’ groups run by women to plant trees, develop nurseries, and produce and distribute saplings,” he says. “This will be our continuous program in the country.”
In order to maintain the program, local leaders are looking to women to learn the skills necessary to manage and conserve forest resources, says Ganesh B.K., a program officer at the Federation of Community Forestry Users, Nepal. The federation plays a major role in the development of community forestry in Nepal by providing leadership and sustainable forest management training.
“They have been applying the learned skills very well,” B.K. says.
After establishing Bal Kumari Community Forest, Nagarkoti says she learned about forest resources management through the District Forest Office’s free, mandatory forest management training course. She also attended six other seminars and workshops, then passed that information to the community forest members.
“I organized trainings for the local women and initiated local house visit programs to inculcate awareness among the member women on community forestry,” she says.
Saraswati Bhetwal, president of the Thuli Community Forest in Panchkhal, a village development committee 30 kilometers (18 miles) east of Kathmandu, says she also shared the information she learning in a training with her community. She taught them how bamboo fences planted on forest borders work as pollution controllers that protect the environment.
"This is what I learned during the training,” she says, “and the whole community is now keen to plant bamboos as well.”
These efforts will combat deforestation, B.K. says.
“Sustainable management alone will prevent depletion of the forest and its resource potential,” he says. “As such, community forest management will protect and nourish the forests.”
Community forests provide dual benefits here. Beyond increasing awareness about environmental conservation, the forests are also helping local people to earn stronger livings.
A majority of Nepalese people depend on the forests – directly or indirectly – in daily life, B.K. says.
At the Bal Kumari Community Forest, a 13-member committee of women monitors the forest and assists 155 other families in using the land, Nagarkoti says. Members pay 120 rupees ($1.20) annually to use the forest resources, offering low-income people an affordable and legal way to obtain forest products.
“Bal Kumari Community Forest is serving its community sustainably, and it is helping low-income people to get grass, firewood and other products for domestic use,” Nagarkoti says. “This has greatly eased the daily lives of the villagers.”
Women, in particular, are increasing their income thanks to their access to the community forest.
“After the handover of the forest to the women, many rural women have been able to increase their income with an overall improvement in the household economy,” Nagarkoti says.
The community forest groups also provide loans to members, she says.
Menuka Nagarkoti, 35, is raising goats to generate extra income after becoming a member of Bal Kumari Community Forest.
“My financial situation as a porter was so bad five years ago that I could not even afford books and stationery for my three daughters studying at a government school,” she says. “The local community forest working committee provided me a loan of 10,000 rupees [$100] at an interest rate of 12 percent per annum.”
The loan enabled her to buy six goats, she says.
“A year later, I sold a dozen baby goats and repaid the loan including the interest,” she says. “Now, I earn about 40,000 rupees [$410] per year. Thanks to the community forest, my financial situation has improved so much.”
Local farmers, such as Laxmi Tiwari, a member and secretary of Thuli Community Forest, use wood and forest products for farming vegetables, rearing livestock and making compost fertilizers.
“I earn about 8,000 rupees [$80] every month by selling milk and potatoes harvested from the farm,” Tiwari says. “My household expenses have been met with this income by utilizing the forest products.”
Women’s participation in these community forest committees has gradually increased since the government implemented the Community Forest Development Program Guidelines 2008, Anuj Raj Sharma says.
These guidelines mandate that 50 percent of community forest committees include women, indigenous people and other marginalized groups, he says. The guidelines also require a woman be the chairwoman or the secretary of these groups.
These regulations ensure women’s active participations, Anuj Raj Sharma says. The government recognizes that women are the major stakeholders in not only using, but also preserving the forests sustainably.
For this reason, women run the community forests better than men do, he says.
“Community forests run by women are better-organized,” Anuj Raj Sharma says. “Women need firewood for cooking, manures for farming, and sticks and wooden frames for vegetable farming. Therefore, with greater stake and concern for forest conservation, they manage the forest better than men.”
The Thuli Community Forest committee had a female treasurer and female members upon its establishment in 1994, Bhetwal says. But the committee has been completely female-led since 2011.
“In 2011, the entire responsibility was given to women, who have now been running it successfully,” she says.
After the women started supervising the forest, thieves and smugglers stopped stealing wood because the women monitor the area to stop it, Bhetwal says.
Women managing the community forest are protective of the areas, says Rajeshwor Sapkota, the former president of Thuli Community Forest.
“Since women have shown keener interest in protecting the forest, they have been given important positions, and they have been looking after the forest just like a mother would do for her child,” he says. “Women strictly observe the rules and regulations and aren’t likely to get involved in corruption.”
Women tend to manage the community forest resources with more transparency than men do, B.K. says.
“Such community forests run by women have shown proven results of transparency in financial activities, resulting in less corruption,” he says. “Transparency in the use of natural resources and the fair distribution have been the hallmarks in the women-run community forests.”
Still, challenges remain for the matriarchs of the community forests, Menuka Nagarkoti says. The number of community forest users is decreasing, especially near urban areas.
People now prefer to buy liquefied petroleum gas rather than firewood for domestic use, she says.
“In recent days, lack of time, unwillingness to travel more than five kilometers [three miles] to fetch grass and wood and the influence of increasing urbanization have caused [a] decrease in the number of users of the community forest products,” she says. “But still, we will continue conserving the forest, come what may.”
Interviews were translated from Nepali. No sources in the article are related.